Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Shannara Platypus: The Platypus Reads Part CVII

Look at Wil, now back to Ander, now back at Wil, now back at Ander.  Wil doesn't look like Ander, but he could smell like him...  Ok, so now we're ramping up the pace as the novel heads towards its climax.  That means switching back and forth between the two narratives every chapter or two to raise the tension.  We'll start with the elves and demons.

Elves and Demons.  Brooks sets us up for that great fantasy cliche "the siege."  Ever since Tolkien gave us the battle of Helm's Deep and the siege of Minas Tirith, the epic battle for the bastion of the forces of light has become the sin qua non of fantasy writing.  Brooks has worked up to this moment with the battles of the passes and the Sarandanon.  Even though there are three battles in this book, they are wisely deployed.  Each battle has some novel element that separates it from the others and thus keeps the the story from becoming repetitive.  After all, three battles in two-hundred pages?  That could get tiresome.  He even reuses the trope of "small band of soldiers facing vast horde of merciless foes but relieved at the last moment by as small and colorful band of allies".  The difference in this case is that we've moved from pitched battle to a siege.  We also get the unexpected appearance of the Wing Riders, thus tying our two narrative threads together again, and the return of Eventine.  Speaking of Eventine, is Brooks being a little to obvious in tipping his hand about who the spy is?  I know he's trying to make us nervous, but was that the right move?

Moving back to Wil and Amberle, Brooks gives us a plausible reason  for why Cephelo saves our duo yet again: he wants the elfstones.  Now I can't remember from when I last read this book, but I imagine that will get him killed.  Perfidy never goes unrewarded in these books.  Eretria is back to throwing herself at will, there being no such thing as a restraining order or sexual harassment suit in Wilderun.  This now creates some nice tension as Wil and Amberle have bonded and Eretria threatens to drive them apart.  Wil does the decent thing, however, and sends the fan service, I mean young Rover girl away.  Before that happens, however, we get to meet Hebble.  When we first meet him, it's as if we've strayed over into a Wendel Berry novel.  Of course, this jars a little with the fact that Brooks has gone to great lengths to convince us of the utter lethality of Wilderun.  Oh well, a little extra will in the willing suspension of disbelief and we can fudge it.  He is a good character and his legend of the witch sisters is well-narrated and compelling adding an air of enchantment we haven't had since the first time we met the Rovers.

Now, my guess as to where this is going, because I can't remember.  I bet the Reaper will track Wil and Amberle and mistakenly attack the Rovers.  Cephelo will try to use the stones he's stolen from Wil and be killed if he's unlucky.  Eretria will somehow recover the stones and escape bringing them back to Wil.  We'll see if I'm right.  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Platypus of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CVI

Once we get into the battle scenes, Brooks is completely on top of his game.  At the battles of the Halys Cut and Baen Draw the story had me compulsively turning pages and feeling some genuine emotion.  Allanon's confrontation with the dragon was particularly intense.  Beyond that, Stee Jans quickly achieves the weight necessary for him to be a staunch supporting character and even Pindanon moves up a notch right when the author needs him to for dramatic effect (in other words, right before killing him off).  Even in the midst of the action, Brooks carves out room for real character development as we watch Ander take his father's throne and learn that Allanon's magic is slowly killing him (a reason that he's so empathetic and patient with Amberle?).  As with the Pykon, then, these chapters represent some of the best writing in the book thus far.  My only regret is that Arion never really emerges as a three-dimensional character before he dies.  That takes away from some of the power the event has on Ander's development.  Oh well, that's always a risk with these cast-of-thousands epics.

Showing good narrative sense, Brooks cuts away from the elven army and the demons at just the right moment to return to Wil and Amberle.  If he keeps cutting back and forth this judiciously, it should help with the overall interest of the work.  The Shannara books are adventure novels and they can't afford to lag.  Speaking of lagging, there has to be a little bit of lag time as we switch gears to Wil and Amberle.  The journey to Grimpen Ward and the description of the town do good yeoman's service by advancing the plot while simultaneously keeping up the tension.  We're allowed a little bit of a breather after the big battle scenes, but not much.  That kind of deft pacing is crucial in this sort of genre.  It's the kind of thing that keeps you racing through a Ridder Haggard, Anthony Hope, or Edgar Rice Burroughs novel without burning out.  We'll see if Brooks can keep it up.

And that brings us to thirty three and page 339.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Platypus of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CV

As Wil and Amberle prepare to enter the Wilderun, they encounter a genuine piece of fantasy creation: the Wing Riders.  Whether they correspond more to the world of Pern or Middle Earth, I'll let you decide, but they aren't directly lifted from either.  So far in the world of the Four Lands, the fantastic creatures we've seen have been mostly evil (several kinds of demons and a bog monster).  Good has the Elcrys and the King of the Silver River.  Yup.  Brooks is probably at his strongest imagining all kinds of creepy antagonists for his heroes to fight; the heroes themselves are rather prosaic.  Adding the Wing Riders and their Rocs helps even things out a bit.  It also provides him with an opportunity to describe a "first flight;" a touchstone that most of us can remember in this age of mass air travel (no doom blimps... sad).  Perk is also one of those plucky little NPCs that you know the GM created purely for the satisfaction of having the villain kill him in some nasty way just to prove how bad he is (I tried that once with a gypsy boy and a horde of sword-wielding Thules attacking an Austrian monastery.  Very effective.).  Like Tolkien's eagles, the Rocs also allow for a little tasteful flying deo ex machina.  With Wil and Amberle safely deposited in Wilderun, however, it's time for the great narrative shift.

Ala Tolkien, Brooks now shifts to what's become of the rest of the company.  That means narrating the struggle of the elves to hold back the demon hordes long enough for Amberle to find the Bloodfire or for the other races to rally to the defense.  This wouldn't be interesting at all if we didn't have the anchor character of Allanon.  I wonder to what degree the Shannara series is really about him.  He dominates the first eight books that Brooks wrote (I can't say about the others as I haven't read them).  Anyhow, Allanon is now equipped with a +100 unique staff of demon-butt-kicking (sorry, non-socketted) and thus gets all the fun of being Gandalf the White without having to take a face plant in the depths of Khazad-Dum.  As Peter Jackson points out when describing the Battle of Helm's Deep, this follows a classic war-movie cliche: the noble, outnumbered defenders facing hordes of merciless opponents and doomed to destruction but receiving that last minute help that just might tip the balance and give them a chance.  It's made for a good story since Herodotus.  So, first we get the staff of the Ellcrys and then we have the Free Company show up (last minute support should always be colorful to catch the audience's interest).  We also get to see Brooks continue to build up Prince Ander into enough of a character to hold our interest (though Ander would be a bit more intelligible as a character if he was a bit younger).  If he can succeed in that, then then he won't have the reader skipping pages just to get back to what's happening with Wil and Amberle.

Brooks, as seems typical in this novel, is a little clunky at first in achieving these objectives.  We're supposed to be struck by the Boarder Legion and their heroic "iron man," Stee Jans, but it all comes of as a bit trite and forced.  Ander, on the other hand, slowly but surely is winning himself a personality, as is his father, Eventine.  Arion still remains pasteboard, as does Pindanon, and that's a pity as it saps the narrative of some of its strength.  The actual description of the elven army and its journey to defend the Breakline against the first onslaught of the demon hordes is nice and evocative.  Once again, however, the real interest in the story is Allanon.  He is the only character with enough weight to really hold the reader's attention.  Brooks seems to know this and is wise enough to keep working the Druid in as often as possible.  

As another note, Brooks lays down some more capitol for future novels in bringing up the Federation.  They will become important in later books and his mention of who and what they are now, even though they aren't very important, adds the kind of "thickness" to his world that should make for increasingly better stories later on.  Brooks claims to have set out to write something like Tolkien but without all the depth; a page-turner.  The irony seems to be that after thirty years of writing Shannara books, he has created his own titanic backstory; a "thick" world.

And that should bring us to about chapter 30...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Platypus(okles), Arete, and Sophia: Platypus Nostalgia

Summer is my new video game season.  When I was a kid, it was year round.  Dennis and I puzzled our way through more games on an all-nighter than I care to count.  My brother and sister and I co-oped on quite a few as well.  After Freshman year of college, things slowed down quite a bit and almost disappeared in grad school.  I remember trying to play a bit of the Game Cube Legend of Zelda and realizing just how rusty I'd gotten.  The first couple years of marriage continued the trend until I got sick and my wife and I discovered Peasant's Quest.  Suddenly we realized this stuff could be fun.  Now the wife and I devote a little time each summer to working our way through one of the Myst games and I pick something to work through on my own as well.  Back in the saddle.  Ye-haw.

This year, my wife surprised me with Starcraft II at Christmas so I got started a little early.  I bit that off in little 30 minute segments on Saturdays and wrapped it up at the beginning of vacation (I love the fact that the game comes in 20-60 minute segments which are perfect for those of us who are adults and have jobs, families, and other interests).  On a whim, then, I decided to try something a little different from my normal fare.  I decided to enter into the world of action-RPGs.  At first, I assumed that meant Diablo.  After a consultation with my friend, the game guru, I decided that old Diablo might be a bit too time consuming to qualify as summer fun.  Then I checked our Torchlight, but that was made by the same people.  Then I remembered something Chappy Graaf Spee had shown me years ago, a little game from a company called Iron Lore: Titan Quest.  Amazon was selling it in a "gold edition" with its sequel and all the patches for eight bucks so I figured: why not (nota bene: I think I may have snagged the last copy.  Sorry!)

Now, here's why this game intrigued me: it's an action-RPG set in Ancient Greece.  You get to build up a hero of epic proportions and then go and like out your Persiod fantasies mulching titans.  This is the video game I would have made if I designed video games.  You even encounter rhapsodists in the towns who will recite the Homeric hymns.  Fun. Fun. Fun.  I should also add that it has a gentle learning curve and lots of good item drops so that you can play through without spending loads of time leveling up your character (very good for us old fogies with other things to do).  The designers also took their time to make the sets fell as authentic as possible.  Dovetail this with the fact that I'm working through two books by Robin Lane Fox ("Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer" and "Alexander") and one by Oswyn Murry ("Early Greece") this summer and you've got a wonderful little combo for Greek scholar fun!  Read about how Euboeans may have contributed to forming the legend of the titans and then go womp on some titans.  See pictures of Dark Age armor and then equip some ad bash things.  Life is just richer with an M.A. in Ancient History.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Late Night With Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CIV

Nota bene: Elven hunters do really exist to heighten the narrative tension via being butchered in nasty ways by various monsters.  Giving them names almost humanizes them.  It's like those red-shirted ensigns on Star Trek away teams that show up merely to illustrate what a dangerous situation the crew has found themselves in.  Crispin, at least, is starting to flesh out a bit as a character.  I don't know why he lets Wil go investigate the Drey Wood when he already thinks that there's danger.  Must be all that rain on the pate.  Chinese water torture or something.  I note also, long after the fact, that Wil forgets in his horror to use the Elfstones.  Good job slipping that one by us Mr. Brooks!

In other news: Amberle is still very much a teenager, but now that she is on a first name basis with Wil and falling asleep on his shoulder she has earned three more character points (I suggest that she put them into cuddle, summon animal companion, and dual wield).  She is becoming more sympathetic and that helps the narrative keep its interest.

Chapter 24 (page 239) features the abandoned fortress of the Pykon.  Brooks does a good job creating a decidedly foreboding atmosphere that has a different flavor from either the Drey Wood or the Matted Brakes which proceed it.  The emptiness and silence are evocative and the stuck door comes at just the right place to heighten the tension.  In fact, the whole scene is wonderfully paced to keep the horror steady and growing right down the narrow bridge and its frantic confrontation.  There's probably a nod to "The Bridge of Khazad Dum" here, but it's artfully disguised.  Wil's existential angst at his own failure in painfully believable as is Amberle's pleading desire to turn away.  All that goes to make this perhaps the strongest chapter in the story thus far.     

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Platypus of Shannara (Cont): The Platypus Reads Part CIII

With Wil, Amberle, and Allanon now safely in Arborlon, Brooks now has two difficult scenes to manage.  First, he must depict the elven council and its decision to accept or reject Amberle.  Second, Amberle will have to speak with the Ellcrys.  We'll take them in order.

The problem Brooks faces in the elven council scene is keeping it from either seeming perfunctory or allowing it to swell into a full "council of Elrond" mega-chapter.  Since Brooks' world is a "thin" world without the depth and sweep of Middle Earth and since he's already given us all the back story we need to understand the quest for the Bloodfire it makes sense that he errs on the side of the perfunctory.  Allanon and Amberle are the only "deep" characters in the scene (Wil just sits there).  We get to see a little more of Eventine, Ander, and Arion; at least enough to confirm their characters.  Of the three, only Eventine will get enough screen time in the next couple chapters to elicit any real response from the reader.  Even then, he's a little flat.  Pindanon et al. really just fill in chairs.  Crispin gets a bit of personality as "captain redshirt," if you know what I mean.  All in all, this scene gets the job done and keeps the focus on the main characters.  Brooks' elves really aren't distinct enough as a culture to create any other sort of interest.  This only bothers me when it comes to trying to figure out why the elves are so hostile to taking Amberle back.  We really just have to take the author's word for it. 

Amberle's conversation with the Ellcrys is managed by simply shutting us out of it.  This is a good move on Brooks' part.  It's the sort of thing that's so hard to do well it's better not to attempt it in light fiction.  Allowing us to see it from Allanon and Wil's perspective works just fine and gives us a little more time to watch their characters evolve.  I do wish Brooks would stop switching p.o.v. in such short burst and often to that of minor characters.  Seeing the council through Ander's eyes is not as powerful as seeing in through Amber's or Allanon's.  On the other side of things, if we're not going to be allowed to see Amber's talk with the Ellcrys from her point of view, the quick switch of p.o.v. to her as she's walking up to the tree seems unnecessary.  Still, that one's just a quibble.  He doesn't repeat it when Amberle speaks with her mother and we're again shut out (another wise decision).  The Marian repetition that Amberle is bearing the Ellcry's seed with Wil as her Catholic-style Joseph hints at some depths in the narrative, but the story is to light-weight to really make full use of them.

Moving on, another brief pause to note that Brooks makes good use of the weather.  The rain shower is well described and adds just the right tone to the departure from Aborlon. Amberle and Wil both sound like they belong better in the Peace Corp than in a medieval fantasy.  Giving them something in common, however, is in service to the narrative.  Amberle is being called upon to give far more than she has ever imagined back to the earth, and Wil is being called on to do far more for the benefit of mankind than he ever dreamed.  This should be played up a bit more, or perhaps just deployed a bit more artfully.  On another note, all the elven hunters have come into existence merely to be butchered in nasty ways by demons.  Yeah.

Final thought: It seems like this book is more properly Terry Brooks' "first book" than "The Sword of Shannara."  Even though there are some parts that seem mishandled or disappoint, he is a good writer and I actually find myself looking forward to pressing on to "The Wishsong of Shannara" and "The Scions of Shannara" just so I can watch his technique evolve and come into its own.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Platypus of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CII

Ending off the Rover episode-

The appearance of the monster that attacks the camp is carefully handled.  Brooks does a good job of building up our sense of foreboding with the rumors about a demon and then the "coughs" in the dark leading up to the attack.  The creature he describes kept reminding me of the slug beast in Doug TenNapel's "Creature Tech," but maybe that's because I'm reading through it right now.  Once again, Terry Brooks is an adept at narrating action sequences.  Every time there's a fight or a chase, I know exactly what's going on without having to pause or reread.  Wil's use of the Elfstones feels a bit perfunctory, but if we've read "The Sword of Shannara," we know that these things work and will respond to Wil in his hour of need.  Cephelo's reaction to the whole incident is spot-on as is Amberle's.  Eretria's flirty insistence on throwing herself at Wil's head baffles me.  She should be running away screaming after that or at least be in shock.

The road trip that follows gives us a chance to settle down a bit and gather our energy before the next frantic chase to the boarder of the elven kingdom.  We also get a chance for Amberle to be a little more endearing.  She seems to be settling down into "sweet but spoiled teenage girl."  One wonders how she managed to survive on her own for months.  Brooks continually points us to her ability to find food in the wilderness, but that's only one part of the equation.  The reappearance of the Dagda Mor is too reminiscent of a Nazgul, but otherwise the chase scene excellent; especially since we don't see the demon wolves this time.  Allanon shows up and serves as a good explanation for how Wil and Amberle escape without having to do any more fire-flinging.  That shows good restraint on the authors part.  He's varying his episodes to avoid redundancy.  Allanon cuts Amberle more slack than he's usually willing to give.  Again, if we've been following Brooks up to this point, we should realize that it's because he sees some similarity between himself and Amberle and pities her, even in the middle of a full teenage meltdown.  Wil's reaction is spot on.  Knowing a bit more about how the series goes, it seems clear to me that the author has the process of becoming a druid in mind already and is writing in light of it.  Even if Brook's world is "thin" and pulpy, he still creates an underlying cohesion that sustains it and should pass an increasingly added interest to each successive volume.

As an afterthought, teenagers seem to replace hobbits in the world of Shannara.  Maybe Brooks just knows his audience.

...and that bring us up to page 177.    

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blogging Through Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CI

Thoughts come pouring in so fast sometimes that they're almost impossible to gather.  In the interest, then,of capturing some of them before they depart and are lost forever, I've decided to blog on Terry Brooks' "The Elfstones of Shannara" as I read.  Currently, I'm on page 156 out of 564.  Let me back up a little, however and explain a bit more about my relationship to the world of Shannara.

I haven't read the Shannara series since I was thirteen or fourteen.  I had finished all of Tolkien I could get my hands on and found myself hungry for more.  At that time, once people heard you were reading Tolkien, they always asked if you had read the Shannara books.  I picked up the series and devoured it being too young to notice or care that "The Sword of Shannara" is point for point rip-off of "The Lord of the Rings."  I read straight through to "The Talismans of Shannara" and then re-read again and again in a short span of time.  After that, I moved on and didn't pick up anything by Terry Brooks until college.  At that time, I was reading my way through various authors' first books to get an idea for the tell-tale characteristics of a first novel.  I read "The Sword of Shannara" on the plane back from Oxford.  I don't recall being very impressed.  From what I hear, Terry Brooks isn't very impressed with it either.  He did write it when he was just a college student after all.  Half my college fictional writing (much to my dismay) is just a badly-remembered rip-off of Brooks.  Anyhow, I found a number of the books on sale for a dollar at the local used book store, so I thought it was time to give him another chance.  With that bit of background, let's move on.

Picking up "The Elfstones of Shannara," I was immediately attracted to the artwork.  The pictures done by the brothers Hildebrant for the first book were even better, but the dignified style of Darrell K. Sweet adds an extra layer of enchantment to the work.  I wish more books, particularly fantasies, were illustrated these days.  Maybe that's just my ignorance talking.

After that good start, however, I have to admit that I wasn't particularly interested in the story until page 52.  The narrative is a bit clunky and the characters are flat and uninteresting.  His elves, and this is a criticism I'd apply to all his races, don't feel one wit different from ordinary American humans.  I know there's plenty of back-story reason for that, but it doesn't make for a very compelling read.  Part of the charm of a fantasy novel is letting the other races exemplify certain human traits carried out far beyond what is currently possible.  Multiply races without giving them individual characteristics that pop and sizzle seems like an impotent use of creativity.  Just so you know that I'm not picking on Brooks here, I'd say that E.R. Eddison has the same problem in his "The Worm Ouroboros."

Moving on to what caught my attention around page 52, it was the appearance of Allanon.  Brooks clearly likes his crankier version of Gandalf and has his character pretty well worked out.  Suddenly, the pace picks up and the narration becomes enchanting.  We sense there is actual depth here without having to take the author's word for it.  Brooks also is a capable and energetic narrator of fight scenes and the battle between Allanon and the Furies had me quickly turning pages.  The writing finally kicked up to the notch where I could imagine the Dagda Mor as scary.

The action slows down again when Allanon comes to Storlock.  He does a good job of making you fell the wet.  Somehow, all of Brooks' villages feel like a American summer camp.  Maybe that's just my mental baggage.  It's nice to see Flick again, and he seems to have a creditable psychology.  Allanon's narrations are always fun, but his attempt to convince Wil to join him, and his later attempt to convince Amberle, come off a bit clunky.  Brooks excels at creating an immediate sense of urgency when bad guys show up, but he's having a hard time so far selling the overall sense of impending Armageddon.

Wil's journey with Allanon to find Amberle reveals Wil to be a character with weight and depth appropriate to his age, family history, and current occupation.  His ability to be circumspect at times is much appreciated.  Brooks is careful to always give us hints as to why Allanon is such a nasty crank.  There's some real pathos when he loses himself in thought about the annihilation of the druids and his own solitude.

Amberle is a bit of an immature brat.  It would help if we were reminded a bit more that this is because she is a spoiled princess.  Her Hippie sermonizing about the Earth seems to be Brooks' attempt at a deeper "applicability" for his story.  I love nature and observe most of the appropriate taboos for a man of my age, class, and station, but I'm really not buying into it here.  The chase scene with the demon wolves as Wil, Amberle, and Allanon are forced to flee the village is well-written.  The appearance of The King of the Silver River is weighty and well-done having a definite flavor of myth.  It also sets us up for the events of "The Druid of Shannara" a few books later.  Amberle becomes a bit more likable once the Rovers appear and we have a chance to see her get jealous.

The whole episode with the Rovers is enchanting.  Here, Brooks seems to have been able to do a little real sub-creating in imagining this gypsy-like community.  The prose he uses to describe their camp life is rich and fluid.  Did anyone else notice that Cephelo sounds like the Ancient Greek word for "head" and that Eretria is a place in Ancient Greece?  Eretria is another of those forceful, sexually frank, women that people fantasies and science fiction.  Sometimes it make me wonder if geek guys are just looking for men with long hair and a figure when they think about a suitable mate.  At least there are no chain-mail bikinis.  Brooks artfully deploys this worn-out stereotype, however, by situating her within the context of Rover culture and allowing us to make the inference that she's playing up her feminine whiles in order to get away.  We also now have the classic "good girl vs. bad girl" cliche present that will require the death, marriage, or nun-ifying of one of them so that Wil does not have to make an actual choice.  This shouldn't be a problem so long as Brooks plays his authorial cards right.  He's been hinting that something unpleasant awaits Amberle from the beginning so that he can get rid of her without it seeming arbitrary or inorganic.  Good job there!

Well that takes you as far as I've gotten.  Overall, I'm beginning to really enjoy the book at this point.  It's not Tolkien, Lewis, Eddison, or Dunsany(the British titans), but it isn't trying to be.  It's not a work of sword and sorcery like Robert E. Howard or Fritz Lieber either (very American authors working in a very American genre).  I think Brooks' genius may be in turning fantasy from epic and pseudo-historical fiction into light reading.  It's like Tolkien-light, and I'm perfectly ok with that.  Anyhow, we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Theater Platypus

Check out Herch's "Ode to the Theater" here.  I think he hits the nail on the head.  Be sure to check out the comments as well.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Platypus Reads (a lot): The Platypus Reads Part C

This category of posts began in 2007.  At that point, for reasons no longer remembered, I decided to try my hand at reviewing books.  The reviews began with a simple list of my three all-time favorites: "The Lord of the Rings," "The Idylls of the King," and "The Oresteia."  From there, it mushroomed out to include everything under the sun.  In all, I've reviewed about forty-seven books in genres ranging from science fiction to philosophy, comics to classics.  In short, whatever has caught my fancy.  After all that effort, it seems like it would be worth while to sit down and put into words what I've learned.  Cliche, I know, but here we go:

1. Read Broadly  There are a lot of books in the world.  You can't read them all.  Most of us are merely content to visit one a favorite genre or two and read from a few favorite authors.  This may be pleasant, but it stunts the mind and constricts literary taste.  In order to grow as persons, we need to have both our views and our tastes challenged.  We pity or roll our eyes at the man who still has the same taste in foods that he did when he was seven but tolerate the same stunted appetite in our reading.  Sometimes, we need to sit down and read a book because it's a book worth reading (I'm discovering that now on a trip through Wendell Berry).  This advice goes for genre, but it also goes for time periods.  Do you have a literary "friend" in each century (as Dr. Fred Sanders puts it)?  How long is your own literary "Dark Age?"

2. Always Connect "Always connect" is a modern historian's maxim but it holds true for our reading habits as well.  People write because they have something to say.  That's true whether its conscious or subconscious.  What they have to say hasn't developed in isolation, but is connected with other authors that they've read or whose thought they've encountered.  Every book is a part of the "Great Conversation" that humans have been having down through the ages.  In the West, Homer got the ball rolling and people have been picking it up and running with it ever since (often in opposite directions!).  Authors are always talking to each other and if you're tuning that out, then you're missing half the fun and half the good of reading.  For instance, Tolkien hated Lewis' Narnia books and Lewis disliked the lion's share of Tolkien's poetry.  Lewis created worlds in miniature while Tolkien sought to create one as vast and sweeping as our own.  Lewis was an Ulster Protestant and Tolkien a Roman Catholic.  Yet both men were friends, shared a common commitment to Christianity, and a common effort to see the kind of stories they liked written for a modern audience.  When reading their books, you can see how they worked out their common commitments in differing ways.  You can hear the dialog and it enriches the experience of reading both authors.  If you want to look at the conversation across time, pick up the "Iliad" and read it back to back with Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" or Sartre's "Existentialism and Human Emotions."  Better yet, pick up Virgil's "Aeneid" and watch him try to "undo" Homer through literary magic.

3. Read In Community One of the things I've enjoyed most about this thread has been the increased opportunity for dialog; sometimes in the comments and sometimes in person.  I think my favorite comments thread has to be the almighty "Iliad" row.  If "it is not good for man to be alone," then it is not good for him to read alone either.  When we read by ourselves, even if we read broadly, our thoughts become ingrown.  We are limited beings and those limits, left unchecked, eventually begin to warp us.  Have you ever met an intelligent person who's done a little too much reading alone?  They usually turn out as cranks.

4. Make Your Reading Personal When I was growing up in church, I remember a man talking about a certain kind of Christian who "missed the Gospel by six inches: the distance from the head to the heart."  Now I do believe that everything we read has an impact on us, but that impact can be passive or active.  A passive impact is akin to "brainwashing:" it gets in over time and colors the way we see things without you even noticing.  An active impact is more akin a devotional or a spiritual discipline: you are working knowingly with the change for a set purpose or goal.  Even reading for fun fits into the active category when we accept what we're doing as part of an ordered program, not just a passive habit or entertainment addiction.  Coming back to the anecdote, I think what it meant was that one can't passively slip into the Gospel, it has to be a conscious choice.  Just so, much of the benefit we get out of reading comes from a conscious choice to engage the art and ideas of the books we read.  When something is Good, True, and Beautiful, we ought to let it down into the core of our being.  When something is Evil, False, and Ugly, we need to resist it.  In so doing, reading can be a means of spiritual formation; a way to take an active role in shaping who we are.

Perhaps these four lessons could have been phrased better, but the beauty of a blog is that it allows us a venue to get our thoughts out and not wait until they're perfect before sharing them.  The common wisdom in the writing world seems to be that perfect books don't get written.  Imperfect books get written, then revised, then revised again, and then sent out into the world.  A book or a blog post is a lot like a human life: it is a reaching for perfection, not an attaining of it.  What does that mean practically?  It means that out of a hundred posts, most of this thread has been junk.  Still, there have been a few posts that have sparkled and caught people's eyes.  Those are the ones that make the others worthwhile.  In those posts, as always, the Platypus speaks Truth.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Retrospective on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Film Platypus

It's now been eleven years since Ang Lee's masterpiece "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" took American theater-goers by storm.  I remember being in the theater and thinking "I've never seen anything like this."  Even "The Matrix" didn't come close."  The sword fight in the bamboo forest, in particular, is a great moment in Film.  Everything about the movie is excellent: the costumes, the sets, the nuanced acting, the lighting and cinematography.  It's truly a feast for the eyes and opened up the American mainstream (for a time at least) for other pieces like "Hero" or "The House of Flying Daggers."  These subsequent films, however, didn't make as much of a splash and American interest in Hong Kong period dramas has waned.

Granted, "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" was exceptional, why the loss of mainstream interest in the genre (there will always be geeks and hipsters who go in for foreign film)?  I think I can take a stab at it.  The most obvious is the cultural barrier.  Foreign films require an extra effort from an audience in order to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers to understanding.  It's not just that people don't like to read subtitles.  Decoding another culture takes time, and it can be frustrating to watch a film whiz by and not have the time to ask a friend a clarifying question or pause to puzzle out an obscure act or turn of phrase.  At home with a DVD player it's possible to press the pause button, but most Americans watch film as a mere amusement and stopping to puzzle out a cultural difference "spoils the fun."  I think there is also a deeper level.  Since they began importing them to the U.S., I have seen four major Hong Kong period pieces: "Raise the Red Lantern," "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," "House of Flying Daggers," and "Hero."  All four movies are tragedies.

Tragedy doesn't sit well with Americans, especially modern ones.  It cuts against the grain of what some scholars have labeled the "Therapeutic Worldview."  You may be familiar with a related offshoot "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."  Briefly put, the Therapeutic Worldview teaches that all human problems can be solved by applying the appropriate scientific technique: medicinal, technical, or psychological.  In this understanding of the world, unhappy endings are entirely preventable.  They represent a mere failure of human ingenuity.  This flies in the face of what classicist Victor Davis Hanson has labeled the "Tragic Worldview."  The Tragic Worldview sees human life as a fragile tension easily swept away by competing forces that can only be controlled to a very limited degree.  In the Tragic Worldview, there can be no truly happy endings as death and entropy will always triumph in the end.  Looking at the four films listed above, the worldview behind the movies that have made it to the U.S. is distinctly Tragic.  Thus, the loss of mainstream interest in these films after the initial splash of "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" may be rooted in a fundamental disagreement about the way that the cosmos works.  Simply put: American audiences want films that affirm and don't contradict their picture of the world.  Narrow minded?  Perhaps, but it's very human.

So what can we learn eleven years later from Ang Lee's masterpiece?  First, we can learn to be stretched.  Great art is out there if we're willing to do the work to get it.  Second, we can allow our view of the world to be challenged.  In the movie, Jen lives the American fantasy of gaining enough power to "follow her heart."  Of course, being a fifteen year old girl, that means playing out in a confused and puerile fashion all her day-dreams lifted from the pages of pulp novels.  The results are disastrous and irrevocable.  Therapy cannot bring Li Mu Bai back, nor can proper medicine reach him in time to save him.  Jen is forgiven and allowed to live, but in the end the knowledge of what she has done poisons any hope for future happiness.  It is a tragedy.  We could posit that in the Brave New World, such problems could never arise, but the challenge is still there.  Is the tragic ending of the movie the result of mere social forces or is it rooted in an immutable human nature?  That's a question worth asking and worth two hours of our time and energy to bring up.     

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

I Got Yer Platypus Right Here!

It took fifteen years to get from Starcraft to Starcraft II.  To say the wait was worth it would be cliched.  Would I have liked this game to have come out a lot sooner?  Sure.  Did I still love it when it came out?  You bet.

I've already discussed my reaction to the map editor for Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty over here.  As far as the game mechanics are concerned, they're the same easy-to-use-hard-to-master interface; just perfect for an old fossil like me.  The Diablo-esque tech-trees were easy to navigate even for someone who has never played any of the Diablo games or their imitators.  The three divergent plot trees were minimal and underdeveloped but still fun.  I appreciated the way they stressed that choices have human consequences.  In fact, that might be the whole point of the game.  

*mild spoilers ahead*

Now on to what really interests me: Story.  Unlike the first Starcraft and its expansion Broodwar, Wings of Liberty has a rather tight, linear story to tell with a major message that it wishes to drive home.  This may be a part of the general drift in video games over the last fifteen years or too many re-runs of "Firefly," or both.  Without going into spoiler specifics, the theme that Wings of Liberty takes up is created community.  To be more specific, it deals with the need for maximum political freedom in order to create voluntary communities where real meaning for life can be found.  A more Gen X/Mosaic theme for a video game cannot be imagined (If it could, it would just become "That Gen X/Mosaic theme for a video game than which a greater cannot be imagined).  That also sounds like De Tocqueville.  America thrives on maximum political liberty supported by a pro-active citizenry working through voluntary organizations.  However, De Tocqueville also noted that the American tendency toward individualism threatened to undermine support for the broader community leading to a fragmented state where people withdrew from public life to only associate with their friends.  The resulting loss of any broader unity must lead back to faction and conflict.  This is the situation that Wings of Liberty presents us with.  How then shall we live in a world where all loyalties are personal and completely voluntary?  If all that matters in life is our little click of friends, how do we make moral decisions, especially when friends have conflicting ideas and levels of commitment?  I think Wings of Liberty takes a crack at answering those questions.  I think in the end it all comes down to force.  We might caveat that we should be frank and decent about it, but it still comes down to brute force.  If I'm right, that answer is predictable and sad; as sad and predictable as Homer.  ...but I still enjoyed the game.

*end mild spoilers*

What can I say to sum up?  Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty was a sequel worth waiting for.  It is an improvement over the original in almost every area, yet still immediately accessible to fans of the original.  The story is fun and deals, in a middlebrow sort of way, with a timely generational quandary.  Let's just hope we don't have to wait another fifteen years for the next installment!